He goes for a kick to her jaw, but she swiftly ducks under his leg and drops to her knee; using her other leg to swipe his ankle and knock him on his back. Ember stands and grabs her sword, which I notice is covered in a rubber-looking covering and goes to point it at his chest. He’s already pushing himself onto his feet, throwing a small rubber knife that thumps against her wrist.
“Hey! No throwing the weapons!” Ember protests, getting out of her defensive stance and glaring at her brother indignantly. Beckett laughs at her face, taking his knife back.
“If my weapon of choice is throwing knives and I’m not allowed to throw the knives, how am I to win?” He asks her in a taunting voice, she sticks her tongue out at him before noticing my presence in the room.
“Oh! Astra, you’re here! I’m glad you’re alright.” I nod, squeezing my arms tightly to my chest. Beckett’s talk made me realize I need to own myself to save everyone, to avenge everyone, but it didn’t just erase the fear. A dark monster sits in my belly, growling, taunting me. I squeeze myself to keep it silent.
“Could you teach me that? Fighting?” I ask, trying to avoid the conversation about my mental health. Ember shrugs and nudges her brother.
“I hate to admit it, but he’s the one who would teach you best. I can only win if I change the rules.” Her tone is joking, but I can see the bruised ego underneath.
“Yeah, sure. Come here,” he says nonchalantly. My heartbeat skips as I cross the mat to him, passing Ember on her way to the bench. After our talk, I can’t help but see him differently, in a less dark way.
“So, what first?” I ask, my voice slightly shaking.
“Defense. Never let a punch hit you in the face, hold your arms up like this,” he holds his arms up to protect his face, “and use them to deflect.” I put my arms up as he’d shown me, planting my feet firmly to prevent stumbling.
He throws a light punch, moving his arm very slowly to show me the process. As his fist makes gentle contact with my forearm I move it from my face and use it to push his fist away, which results in his arm twisting slightly.
“Good. Like that, now faster.” This then he punches a little faster, but I deflect just as easily. It’s not as hard as I thought. I smile in pride at Ember, and a fist connects with my jaw.
“Ow!” I yell, looking back at Beckett in shock. He shrugs at me, and I rub my sore jaw.
“Always keep your eye on the enemy. Now, again.” I sigh and roll my eyes, my throbbing jaw is a constant reminder of the next few punches to not take my eyes off him. He is fast, and moves swiftly. As he punches harder and faster with each attempt it hurts more, but I grit my teeth and push forward.
“You seem to have that just fine, so now I want you to deflect and then fight back.” Good, now he can get a taste of it back. My brain goes dark at that moment and the image of him lying unconscious flashes in my mind again.
No, I won’t lose my cool again.
He throws a punch slowly again, I deflect with my arm easily and step into a punch; I miss his face as he swiftly dodges. He kicks my ankle that I'd stepped forward with, and with a shriek, I fall backward onto the mats.
“What gives!” I yell, my neck and head throbbing from the impact. Beckett stands over me and shakes his head in a disappointed manner.
“I could tell in your eyes you didn’t mean your punch. If you’re going to fight someone you have to mean it. You can’t be afraid.” He could see right through me, he could see I was holding back.
“You have powers for shit's sake! Don’t try to punch me with your little fists, use your powers dammit.” I sigh and stare at the ceiling, I know I need to but I don’t feel ready. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel ready.
“Ok,” I mutter and finally look back at him, he extends his hand and I take it. Electricity explodes through my body as he helps me up, if he feels it he doesn’t let on.
“Don’t be afraid, Astra. I’ll be alright, learn from your mistakes.” I nod, he gives me a small sideways smile and holds up a finger to say ‘one moment’. Ember and I watch him go to the wall and grab a dramatic helmet. I roll my eyes and laugh at him as he puts it on and gives his head a couple of knocks.
“I see you’re prepared,” I laugh, he grabs the shield from last time. Ember gives us a weird look, her eyes saying something I don’t quite understand. She watches quietly.
“Always, now I don’t want sissy shit. Give me what you got.” His eyes are confident, but it doesn’t reach me. Anxiety balls in my chest and nausea make my stomach flip.
The last time I gave it to him he got hurt, and I want to learn from my mistakes but I’m too afraid to try. My fear blocks my mind, so I can’t release my energy.
Before I can tell him I’m not ready, he attacks. He lets out a yell before coming at me, he slices the air with the shield. It comes close to me, so I sidestep and dodge his attack. Beckett turns his body and swings a fist at me, I block it and sidestep again. Just defense, I’m not comfortable with offense; the monster in my gut growls. The monster of memories that eats at me and whispers, ‘you could kill him’.
Beckett notices I’m not fighting back, so he stops.
“Come on,” he huffs. I shake my head no, I’m not comfortable with fighting him. “Aren’t you a stubborn one?”
“I can be,” I state, crossing my arms.
“Well fine, we’ll put you in the simulation,” Beckett says, taking off the helmet and indicating for me to follow him. I gulp, the simulation seems to be for people who are more well off than I.
“Beck, are you sure?” Ember asks, mirroring my exact thoughts.
“We will be right here. If she doesn’t feel comfortable using her powers on us, then she will have to learn using the next to the real thing.” I stand there alone on the mats now, they both look at me from the side.
“Don’t be afraid,” Ember encourages giving me a thumbs up, but I can see her fear in her eyes.
“Wrong, be very afraid.” Beckett corrects, before flipping a switch and everything disappears. I don’t even have time to register his words, as the magick kicks in and I’m no longer in the training room. Or rather, I am, but I don’t feel like I am.
I whirl around, frantically looking for Ember and Beckett. All I see around me is the Shadow Realm. Again, I feel as though I’ve been dropping into a Tim Burton film. Ember and Beckett, who I’m sure can see me, only see me standing on the mats. But I can see a whole other world. The magick feels so real, I can even smell the rotting land.
I stand alone in a wide field, deep blue mountains surround me, and above me is a dark unlit sky. The only source of light is the moon, which’s barely noticeable through heavy clouds.
“Guys?” I call out, feeling wildly uncomfortable. “I don’t think I’m ready for this-” I’m cut off by the sight of a vamp charging at me. “Guys!” They don’t come to my rescue.
It’s ok, it’s not real. I close my eyes and breathe calmly, ignoring the vamp charging. It screams in my face, I can feel the spit hit my skin. Ok, it feels real. But it’s not.
It slashes at my arm, my eyes fly open at the shock of the pain. I scream, cradling my arm and stepping away fast. He doesn’t relent, he bares his razor-sharp teeth at me and lunges again.
Maybe this is real? It sure hurts like it is. Blood drips down my arm, scaring me into motion. I don’t think about slowly letting go of my wall, letting my energy slowly heat up, I just attack.
It’s purely on reflex, as though my fight or flight kicked in. My golden orb appears, and I throw it at the vamp. It hits him square in the chest, upon impact he freezes, his skin cracks like porcelain; and he shatters. I did it, I saved myself.
Another vamp grabs hold of my hair and yanks, I scream and reach up to grab his head with my hand. I let the energy burst against his skull, and he too falls in a shatter.
My energy takes the life out of the Shadow Creatures, they do not bleed or get wounded, they just die. I am more powerful than I thought.
My confidence builds after downing the first two, so as the third one takes at me I dig my feet in the dirt and shoot a strong beacon at it. He falls, and another quickly replaces him. For this attack, I don’t shoot a beacon or throw an orb, this time I slingshot a disk from my hand; it slices the air and decapitates him.
I laugh at my competence, excitement bubbles in my chest as all anxiety leaves my body. I feel capable, unafraid. The walls of the simulation slowly dissipate, they melt away until I’m back in the training room looking at Beckett and Ember.
Ember grins at me proudly, and Beckett has a smug look on his cheeks.
“What’s that look for?” I ask with as much attitude I can muster, but at least at this moment, I’m not mad at him. I’m glad he pushed me.
“Oh nothing, it’s just a little something told, I was right.” He replies snarkily, I walk over and smack him on the arm; but we are both smiling.
“You are so cool, Astra! I wish you could see yourself!” Ember shrieks, jumping up and down with uncontainable excitement. “There is no way we will lose against Parallax, you just took down vamps without even breaking a sweat!”
“Ok, easy there,” I say, but I’m laughing at her joy. To be fair, I’m grinning ear to ear as well. I feel comfortable with myself, a weight lifts off my chest and I can breathe. The monster in my belly is gone for now, and I can feel the tension leave my neck and shoulders.
This is the happiest I’ve ever felt, and without the suppression, I can feel it. Internally I’m jumping as Ember is.
“Your arm,” Beckett says over our excitement. Oh, right. That. In the adrenaline, I’d forgotten. “We need Alatar to heal that.” In the light, it looks worse than it had in the Shadow Realm. Four slashes tear deeply into my arm, tearing muscles and veins.
“Ow.” That is all I say, the pain finally edging its way into my psyche.
“Yeah, ow. Let’s get upstairs,” Ember instructs, guiding me.
“Well, if Beckett is also learning magick can’t he just heal it?” I ask, wanting the pain to end now. It throbs and fogs up my mind. I grit my teeth and hold my breath.
His eyes darken as I meet them, he drops his eyes and just pushes past us to go up the stairs.
“What did I say?” I gasp out, as we head up the stairs as well.
“Oh, um,” Ember says quietly, then she sighs. “It’s just, Beckett’s magick isn’t like Alatar’s.”
“Why not?” I prod, “is it because he’s not as advanced?” Her eyes look uneasy, and she speaks under her breath as if the walls are listening.
“Well, it’s because…well it’s because Beckett can only use dark magick.”